Listen to how we discuss clean energy in this country, and you’ll note that the conversation is exactly upside down. To hear the mainstream discourse tell it, clean energy may be a nice idea but it’s prohibitively expensive. Going green, it’s said, will cost jobs and strangle growth at a time when America must do whatever it takes to get our economy and people working again. Environmentalists are going to raise everyone’s energy bills. We’re the "job killers."
This framing of the issue runs 180 degrees counter to the actual facts of life in the year 2011. Clean energy transformation is the best—perhaps the only—path to economic and job growth, including rebuilding our industrial base and competitiveness. As British economist Nicholas Stern has said of clean energy, "These investments will play the role of the railways, electricity, the motor car and information technology in earlier periods of economic history."
Renewable energies, if properly financed and combined with energy-saving investments, will lead to lower net energy bills for Americans, cheaper transportation and price stability. With a smart grid, the savings from new refrigerators, cars, lights and air-conditioners that use far less energy will more than compensate for the relatively small increases in electric rates needed to discourage carbon and switch to wind and solar. McKinsey & Company’s 2009 report "Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy" shows that for every dollar spent making buildings and appliances more efficient, we’ll get two in return. What other investment can match that? The same report estimates that the United States could reduce annual energy consumption by 23 percent with net dollar savings (not counting savings in transportation from vehicles, which would add more). And this is based on the price of fossil fuels remaining constant, which it won’t.
Meanwhile, it is well established that labor-intensive investments in solar, wind and increased building efficiency create far more jobs than similar investments in fossil fuels. These technologies will most likely go down in cost while fossil prices will only go up long-term. And with a renewable energy economy, there is no cost of fuel or fuel price volatility. Imagine that.
Yet, despite this mountain of evidence, clean energy supporters have allowed themselves to be tarred as the public’s economic enemy by the very fossil fuel forces whose policies will guarantee the economic decline of America. As long as the public conversation remains tethered to these ridiculous assumptions, you can be sure there will be no progress made in Washington against the major challenge facing our civilization—climate destabilization.
With the campaign for green jobs, progressives and environmentalists have made some headway in conveying our positive economic message, but we remain too often on the defensive. Why not come out swinging? We should hammer home the point that sticking to fossil fuels will guarantee the economic decline of our country. It will lead to much higher gasoline and food prices, as world demand increases; losing the next industrial wave to China and Korea; the transfer of even more of our wealth to the Middle East; trillions more for resource wars; the enormous costs of climate adaptation and climate disruption. Droughts, floods, snowpack loss, loss of agriculture and drinking water—not exactly economic benefits.